Friday, September 24, 2010

On rewriting history

Phil Taylor has a piece in this week's Sports Illustrated (I cannot find it on-line) criticizing the NCAA's recent over-reliance on stripping teams and players of wins, records, and awards as punishment for rules violations. He derides the punishment as meaningless and ultimately ineffective symbolism. It is incoherent, because it asks us to disregard our own memories and experiences. We remember Kentucky Memphis losing in overtime in the NCAA Finals in 2008 or Massachusetts making the Final Four in 1996 or Reggie Bush running wild and winning the Heisman in 2005. Yet the NCAA tells us this never happened, even though we know it did. Actually, Taylor points out something that makes this a total farce: The NCAA cannot or will not enforce this penalty beyond its own record books. So while Massachusetts officially did not make the Final Four in 1996, a Final Four banner hangs from the rafters at the UMass arena (the NCAA asked the school to take it down and the school refused). So UMass can, in its physical space, present its own official history, NCAA be damned.

Of course, the problem with this punishment is not that the written record conflicts with our memories. The problem is that the written record becomes our memories over time. As I argued previously, this is an attempt to create an "official" but not "true" or "accurate" historical record, knowing that when collective memories fade (or people die), the official record becomes the true record. One hundred years from now, everyone will "know" that Kentucky Memphis did not play in the 2008 Finals--because that is what the NCAA says. This smacks too much of what totalitarian societies do--creating an "official," government-approved history by formally altering the documentary record and expecting everyone to fall in line with that record.

Yes, this is just sports. But as a matter of intellectual honesty and truth over the course of time, is the NCAA telling us that Kentucky Memphis did not play in the finals in 2008 or that USC did not win all those games in 2005 any different than the Soviet Union telling us that Nikolai Yezhov never stood right next to Stalin in a group picture on the Moscow Canal?